What is fast fashion and why is it a problem?

Alex Crumbie explores a mainstreaming of concern about the social and environmental impacts of the clothing industry.

Fast fashion is ‘fast’ in a number of senses: the rate of production is fast; the customer’s decision to purchase is fast; delivery is fast; and garments are worn fast, usually only a few times before being discarded. It is a model that is entirely unsustainable.

According to the Fixing Fashion report, a scathing cross-party analysis published by the UK Parliament in 2019 (see below for more), the fast fashion business model is “encouraging over-consumption and generating excessive waste.”

Fast fashion has generally become the norm across the clothing sector, with most of the brands in this guide utilising elements of the fast fashion business model to varying degrees.

However, the worst offenders in the UK are some of the newer brands on the block, notably: Boohoo, Pretty Little Thing, Nasty Gal (all of which are owned by Boohoo), and Missguided.

These brands market their clothes primarily to young people, especially young women, with promises of cut-price individuality, female empowerment and next-day delivery. 

It is on these brands that this section will focus.

Fast Production

An essential aspect of the fast fashion business model is the offering of hundreds of new products, every week, or even every day. At the time of writing, Pretty Little Thing’s website listed an incredible 284 items under ‘New In Today’, while Missguided listed 639 under ‘New This Week.’

The short lead times necessary to deliver such vast quantities of new designs mean that wash tests and wearer trials are usually not possible, which has implications for garment quality and durability. Furthermore, many of the products are made with materials that cannot be recycled.

‘Reshoring’

While most fashion companies still source the majority of their garments from overseas, some fast fashion brands such as Boohoo, Missguided and ASOS, have ‘reshored’ a substantial part of their production, sourcing garments from the UK, with many products made in Leicester.

The city is one of the UK’s textile manufacturing hubs, employing 10,000 textile workers in 700 factories. Many of the large buildings where manufacturing takes place do not house just one factory, but a whole load of mini-factories, reportedly up to a hundred, each employing around 10 to 20 people.

The sourcing from the UK means these online retailers can drastically reduce their lead times, allowing them to quickly react to changes in consumer tastes. But how have these brands managed to source so much of their stock from the UK, where the costs of labour are substantially higher than other parts of the world, such as Asia, and yet keep prices so low?

True, online retailers have lower overheads costs since they don't have physical stores, but this clearly isn't the whole story. 

Fixing Fashion: a House of Commons report

In February 2019, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee released a damning report on the fashion industry, ‘Fixing Fashion: Clothing Consumption and Sustainability.’

The report examined the environmental and social costs of the fashion industry, especially fast fashion. It made a number of recommendations to government, many of which argued for legislation in order to secure business compliance, as opposed to the failed system of voluntary cooperation primarily in place at present.

Some examples of the key recommendations:

  • Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP) should be made mandatory for all retailers with a turnover of more than £36 million. (Rejected)
  • Ban incinerating or landfilling unsold stock that can be reused or recycled. (Rejected)
  • A charge of one penny per garment on producers in order to raise investment for better clothing collection and sorting in the UK. (Rejected)

Worker exploitation

The smoke of low prices is rarely found without the fire of worker exploitation. As trade union Unite points out, “in ‘high wage countries’ clothing producers continually attempt to drive down wages for profit.” It is, therefore, no surprise that fast fashion brands were found to be relying on a workforce comprising largely of migrant, temporary workers, who were underpaid and overworked.

An exposé by the Financial Times in 2018 discovered workers at factories in Leicester were paid as little as £3.50 an hour, under half the minimum wage for people aged 25 and over.

As part of the Fixing Fashion report, Boohoo and Missguided were approached and asked to respond to the issues of worker exploitation. 
Missguided stated that it joined the Ethical Trade Initiative (ETI) in 2017 and had since consolidated the number of factories in Leicester from 81 to 11.

Boohoo, however, remained reluctant to join the ETI.

Boohoo received Ethical Consumer’s worst rating for Supply Chain Management, Missguided received a middle rating, which was based on an assessment of each company’s Supplier Code of Conduct and other polices relating to managing their supply chains.

image: seagulls swarming landfill waste fast fashion

Fast Sale

Purchasing items of clothing is now easier than ever, facilitating mass overconsumption.

Fast fashion brands make heavy use of social media platforms, particularly Instagram, where users are able to purchase the clothes they see upon the bodies of models and ‘influencers’, those beautiful but relatable demi-gods of social media, in just a few swipes of the finger or thumb.

And low prices mean that buying an item requires little consideration. On top of that, even those without the money can have what they desire in the world of fast fashion with the wide availability of online credit, notably via the Swedish service, Klarna.

Delivery is also fast and relatively cheap, allowing customers to have what they desire the day after their desire first took hold. Boohoo, Pretty Little Thing, Missguided and ASOS all promote delivery services that offer a year of unlimited, next day delivery for under £10.

Fast Use

The garments produced in the world of fast fashion are generally of low quality, but many are thrown out before they have the chance to be worn out. While the average person buys 60% more items of clothing than they did 15 years ago, that clothing is kept only half as long.

It appears that this problem is worse among younger generations. A study commissioned by Barnardo’s suggested that a quarter of people would be embarrassed to wear an outfit to a special occasion more than once, but this figure rises to 37% for young people aged 16-24 and falls to just 12% for over 55s.

Another study found that 17% of questioned young people said they wouldn’t wear an outfit again if they'd already posted it on Instagram.

Fast Forward

Fast Forward is a UK, company-led initiative, developed in 2014, to “address concerns of exploitative practices in UK fast fashion being undetected by existing social compliance audits.”

It is essentially an in-depth audit assessment which aims to expose labour abuses that have previously gone under the radar. The following brands are supporting members:

  • ASOS
  • M&S
  • New Look
  • Next

It's worth noting that Boohoo and Missguided are absent in this list.

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